3.3 Support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from regional and remote areas

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Current situation

According to ABS data, in 2008, 44% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lived in regional areas and 24% in remote (or very remote) areas ( ABS 2008a). Departmental data in 2010 indicated that 60.0% of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolled in university came from an urban residence, 31.9% came from a regional residence and 8.1% from a remote residence. A greater proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students come from remote locations (8.1%) compared to non-Indigenous students (0.9%) ( DIISRTE 2012a).74

Given the relatively high proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from regional and remote locations (40%) ( DIISRTE 2012a),75 the Panel believes that it is important to consider their particular support needs, beyond those already identified for other Indigenous students, to maximise their success.

The Panel heard in its consultations with universities, particularly those in Western Australia, and through submissions, about the additional challenges that these students can face.

We acknowledge that there can be different issues for students from regional or metropolitan areas … We urge the maintenance of a strong focus on support for these students, which should not be seen as the province only of Indigenous Support Units (submission no. 64, University of Queensland – Emmanuel College, p. 3).

One of the challenges is the costs of relocating and finding suitable and affordable accommodation. Housing costs are an issue for many students. However, regional and remote students often do not have the option of living with family so housing and relocation costs can be an additional burden for them. Students who relocate not only face financial pressure but may also face challenges of feeling isolated and removed from their families.

Everyone says that education is the key but they don’t understand that for a typical Torres Strait Islander kid to get that education we have to travel many miles and leave family and friends behind (Adeah Kabai, engineering student, CQUniversity).

Some students may need to return home more often than non-Indigenous students to participate in ceremonies and other cultural activities within their communities.

Consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander PhD holders also pointed to HDR students from regional or remote locations requiring similar additional support. All of the challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students more broadly are particularly difficult when faced at a distance.

Mixed mode and reverse block release programs

The Panel is aware of existing initiatives to deliver courses to communities, or allow students to travel to university for short periods to complete their study and return to their community. These courses are usually referred to as ‘mixed mode’ and ‘reverse block release’ programs. They can be particularly important for students from regional and remote areas as they remove the financial burden of relocation and the feelings of cultural isolation by allowing students to continue to live at home.

A ‘mixed mode’ course is a nationally accredited course delivered through a combination of distance education and intensive residential blocks or periods of face-to-face teaching. This mode of study allows students to complete courses in their home communities with occasional time on campus, and is well suited to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who otherwise may not be able to access tertiary education.

‘Reverse block release’ is a form of mixed mode Away-from-Base (AFB) delivery where a provider representative travels to students’ home community or communities to deliver on-site training. The provider must demonstrate that this is a more cost-effective option than if students were to travel to the provider.

The mixed mode AFB delivery is one of two Australian Government programs that provide support for eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to undertake mixed mode delivery courses within the VET or higher education systems.

Under the mixed mode AFB program, funding is paid directly to eligible institutions that then manage program delivery. Mixed mode AFB provides funding to cover travel costs (including fares, meals and accommodation) for eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students studying approved mixed mode courses where those courses require students to travel away from their permanent home for a short period of time. AFB funding is calculated using either an ‘established’ Education Provider Unit Cost (EPUC) determined on the basis of institutional expenditure in 1998, or for courses established after 2000, a ‘median’ EPUC determined on the basis of overall expenditure in 1998. Established rates vary from around $577.26 to $15,816.73 per student, with the median EPUC at $5,542.82, in 2011. Following revision of courses, institutions move from the established rate to the median rate, with most established rates below the median—along with a number above the median—no longer in operation.

The second program, ABSTUDY Away-from-Base, is administered by Centrelink with funding paid to the individual or their institution. Both programs share the same overarching goals but differ in program design and administration. Students may only receive assistance under one Away-from-Base program for their course.

What needs to change?

Access to high-speed technology and virtual networks for regional and remote students

Students from regional and remote areas require access to technology to support their distance learning. The consultations with HDR students indicated that the main forms of communication are often telephone and Skype (a voice-over-internet protocol service), but in many instances, telephone communications are considered unsatisfactory.

Distance Education is very lonely and isolating. I would definitely have enrolled as an internal student if I could have. I saw my supervisor once or twice a year.76

Students often face challenges in gaining sufficient access to university services. One student relates:

I was unaware of any scholarships as I was living out on my homeland in a remote locality.77

Virtual networks would help higher-degree students based in remote or regional areas to better access peers and academics. Suggested approaches during consultations included establishment of online forums and regionally based networks.

The National Broadband Network will play a critical role in increasing functionality of online support and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia has suggested that the needs of remote communities should be addressed in the rollout of the National Broadband Network (submission no. 65, ASSA, p. 6).

More affordable housing options need to be provided

The Panel learned that many students experience problems finding appropriate and affordable housing when they move to a new city to study and that student housing is also a problem for non-Indigenous students. However, given that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students come from regions where they may have to move away from home to attend university, access to affordable housing may be more important for them. The Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education has recognised a shortage of safe, affordable and accessible student accommodation, particularly in Australia’s major cities ( DIISRTE 2012e, p. 1). 2006 Census data indicates that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are more likely to be renting (53%) compared with non-Indigenous students (38%).

While the government provides income support to students to assist with the cost of living and also provides some capital funding, universities and the private sector are best positioned to supply student housing.

The need for more affordable housing for students was raised in various submissions received by the Panel.78 For example, the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) stated that:

[i]n all of our experience and discussions about Indigenous students’ experiences at university post-school, securing affordable and suitable accommodation is by far one of the biggest obstacles to access to university and successful completion for those who do gain access (submission no. 57, AIEF, p. 1).

The University of Western Sydney noted that

many of the trainees/students do not have affordable accommodation in the [Greater Western Sydney] area and … successful study or employment is not feasible if they remain at home. Such accommodation could be linked to cultural and academic support [through] Elders on campus programs and mentoring (submission no. 62, University of Western Sydney, p. 8).

Some universities are already providing housing on campus to support their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students either through accommodation that they own or in partnership with others. The Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education ( DIISRTE) has identified that in recent years there has been:

an increase of student accommodation development financed through public private partnership (PPPs) and private sector involvement … These developments also appear to be predominantly situated in inner metropolitan centres rather than outer metropolitan or regional areas ( DIISRTE 2012e, p. 3).

The Panel supports these initiatives and believes that universities should look at opportunities to develop and expand creative approaches to student housing. The Panel is particularly interested to see more opportunities that draw on philanthropic support for student housing as featured in the University of New South Wales Shalom College model. This model allows students to live in a residential college on campus—something that is beyond the financial reach of many students.79 The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) proposed that universities should address this issue:

[A]ll universities should have a number of rooms available at a reduced rate, if only a token rent, specifically for [I]ndigenous students, both covering those travelling on block release80 and those working with the University on a part-time basis (submission no. 56, CAPA, p. 11).

Building on existing efforts

The University of New South Wales Shalom College accommodation support program involves a partnership between the college and the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation. The Shalom Gamarada Scholarship Program offers residence at Shalom College to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students studying at the University of New South Wales. The scholarships are funded by a range of corporate, private and philanthropic donors. In 2012, 24 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students will be studying and living at the college as part of the program.81

Deakin University’s Institute of Koorie Education, which has operated for over 25 years, provides an on-campus residential facility through the Kitarra Centre which provides accommodation, food and extensive in-house support including access to in-house tutors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Ensuring the quality of mixed mode Away-from-Base courses

Previous departmental reviews have identified that the mixed mode Away-from-Base program ‘has the potential to play an important role in increasing Indigenous [students’ choices] as well as participation in and access to VET and Tertiary education’ (Department of Finance and Deregulation 2010, p. 165). They have also highlighted that it is difficult to quantitatively assess the program’s contribution to higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students based on the performance indicators used and the inability to track the outcomes of students once they are no longer supported by the program.

Given the potential value of this form of course delivery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, particularly those from remote and regional areas, the Panel considers that steps should be taken to develop quality standards for the courses of study supported by the program. Once developed, these should be used to revise the funding criteria for this program. The standards should cover the following elements:

  • quality delivery and graduate attributes
  • track record of retention and completion rates
  • relevance of programs to community need demonstrated through evidence of research into community needs
  • academic and student support plans
  • ways to promote greater collaboration between institutions to support the viability of mixed mode courses in critical fields of education
  • Away-from-Base course rates standardised.

Continuity of support to students changing universities

During the consultation process, two regional universities82 noted that students may start studying at their university and then switch to a preferred university. The universities that the students transferred away from were concerned that the sector’s system did not adequately recognise their efforts in enrolling the student and preparing them for the university to which they transferred. Therefore, it may act as a disincentive for universities to collaborate and facilitate such transfers, which are often in the student’s best interests.

In consultations, the University of New England noted the need for exit surveys to better understand motivations for student movements. The university understood that many students leave regional universities to attend universities in the city, often feeling better prepared based on their initial experience at the regional university. The University of New England outlined their trial project with the University of Sydney targeting low SES students. The University of Sydney will be offering students a placement regardless of their university admission score if they can complete their first year at the University of New England. While this approach may reduce the University of New England’s retention rates, the university believes that it is important to encourage these students through their university studies.

While the issue was raised by regional universities, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-indigenous students who transfer to a different provider varies widely across universities. At the majority of universities, a greater proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students transfer to a different university compared to non-Indigenous students ( DEEWR n.d.).83

For those students who were enrolled in a bachelor course in 2005 and had completed it by 2010, 8.4% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students completed their course at a different provider compared with where they originally enrolled. For non-Indigenous students the figure was 5.9%, with larger differences occurring at individual universities ( DEEWR n.d.).84

The Panel suggests that universities may wish to explore initiatives similar to the University of New England – University of Sydney trial project to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, particularly from regional and remote areas, who may seek to transfer between providers.

Recommendations

Recommendation 15

That universities consider how best to support the needs of regional and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, including through:

  • the use of virtual networks and other technology-based solutions to provide greater access to universities by remote and regional students
  • options to provide additional and affordable housing specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people relocating away from their families. These options could include developing further partnerships and philanthropic support to deliver affordable accommodation on campus.
  • working with the Higher Education Standards Panel to develop quality standards for Away-from-Base education delivery
  • collaboration to allow recognition of the effort of universities that may enrol students who then go on to complete their degrees at different universities.

Recommendation 16

That the Australian Government revise the Away-from-Base funding guidelines to align with the quality standards developed in response to Recommendation 15.

74 Based on Table A providers and domestic students only.

75 Based on Table A providers and domestic students only.

76 Survey information from IHEAC Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Academic Doctors’ Forum, November 2011.

77 Survey information from IHEAC Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Academic Doctors’ Forum, November 2011.

78 For example, submission no. 7, Penrith, p. 3.

79 The ABSTUDY Residential Costs Option pays an ABSTUDY-eligible student’s full cost of university residential expenses while the student receives a reduced living allowance during the semester. During breaks when residential costs are not charged, the student’s ABSTUDY reverts back to their normal entitlement. Around 200 university students utilise this option.

80 The Panel notes that ABSTUDY can pay the full cost of accommodation, meals and travel for students undertaking block release activities—this assistance is non-means tested and available to both full-time and part-time students. In addition, many universities receive direct funding for their students’ block release activities under contracts with DIISRTE.

81 Data provided by University of New South Wales.

82 The University of New England and Charles Sturt University.

83 Data includes both the student ID and Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number components to pick up students who may switch providers during their course.

84 Data includes both the student ID and Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number components to pick up students who may switch providers during their course.